This Sad Generation Doesn't Know When the Party Stops
Teenagers, twentysomethings, thirtysomethings—when and how are we supposed to grow up?
Photo by Anis Ali
This article first appeared on VICE UK
The idea of "living for the weekend" is nothing new. The history of what we call "youth culture" is really just a history of young people being unable to reconcile their day-to-day lives with their social lives, finding solace in the tribal rites of a Saturday night and workless mornings rather than careers, kids, whatever. A search for a brief few years of drug-taking, shame-walking, clan-fighting, shit-talking "otherness" before we finally become our own parents, whether we fucking like it or not.
Do you spend the first four days of your week scrolling through the Sport Bible Facebook page or waiting for Twitter to kick off about the latest moral catastrophe, nursing obscure chest pains, desperately awaiting that moment where the clock turns 5 or 6 or 6:30 so you can hit the nearest bar and throw a load of shit you wouldn't de-ice your car windows with down your scarred, collapsing airways? Your sense of disillusion is not unique. The only thing that's different about it is the Facebook part. Boundless indulgence is a decades-old problem, an inescapable part of the late-capitalist condition, a symptom of the endless, warless, nothingness of modern life.
You'll find similar feelings expressed in cultural artifacts as revered and ubiquitous as Saturday Night Fever, Quadrophenia, and Bright Lights, Big City. You and your friends might feel like Young Soul Rebels, finding a higher truth through your boundless hedonism, but in actuality you're just shadowboxing your way through an increasingly unambitious cliche. You don't have to be the Christiane F. of your school year group to be a wreckhead now. Even the kids who read Redwall books in the library at lunch get it. These days, it's more transgressive to abstain than to overindulge.
The concept of the teenager is now in its sixties and it's starting to look dated. Where once giving in to those idiot urges that arrive on Friday night was recognized as an essential, natural phase that young people just went through—a kind of existential pubescence that would be rinsed out of their systems once their hangovers started to last days rather than hours—it feels like people today are forgetting to do the moving on part.
It's no longer just teenagers and students who seem to be running away from real life. It's people in their twenties and thirties, too—people who should really know better but don't seem to know how to do much else. Fully grown, semi-functioning adults who are unwilling to surrender those endless nights spent staring at their own harrowed reflections in club-toilet cisterns and can't find much reason to give them up, either. People like me.
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This is my generation, the generation with no real incentive to grow up. No kids to feel guilty about, just jobs that let them scrape the money they need to feed, house, and wash themselves. Only the screams of their bosses and worried phone calls from their families goad them on. They're an army of First World wasters trapped in an Escher maze of immaturity.
A friend of mine told me recently that he'd read it would be impossible to make Big now, because 30-year-olds still do the kind of things teenagers do. It wouldn't be funny or shocking anymore to see a grown man buying a pinball table or wearing jeans to the office. It probably wouldn't work even if he were 40 in it.
I'm not 30, but I'm not that far off it either, and when I look at my life I find very little to differentiate it from when I was 17. As I look back at my summer, I can see it in my mind's eye as a slow strobe of wandering the streets of London with tens of blokes, wolfing down tinnies, singing football songs, trying to gatecrash parties, texting girls to find out what they're up to and getting ignored, posting stupid Vines in our secret Facebook group, quartering grams, listening to Underworld, and wearing tracksuit bottoms. I'm in a badly cast remake of Goodbye Charlie Bright and I don't know how to get out of it.
While such behavior is undeniably cathartic and entertaining, it's not really the kind of thing I thought I'd be doing at my age. As a teenager I assumed I'd be like a character from Manhattan by now, with a flourishing yet refined social life enlivened by the occasional high-society Beaujolais piss-up and BFI Bergman retrospective. I didn't think I'd be married with kids, but I didn't think I'd still be getting turned away from the Upper Street B@1 for wearing shorts.
Now, you may cry "crisis of masculinity." You may cry "fear of commitment," or "quarter-life crisis," or just "stupid cunt"—but I think in doing so you'd be ignoring something that is basically true. You can claim that this malaise is purely a London thing, and that the Peter Pans who fill this city moved here for the express purpose of prolonging their adolescences for as long as possible. But even if you're the same age and are way more responsible, this pattern is something you'll see in every town and city in the country. In my mind there is little doubt that this massive, generational detachment from maturity is a nationwide problem, and probably the narrative that will come to define us when they begin to write our stories. It'll be told as the story of how the traditional routes out of our youth—babies, houses, a job worth breaking your back for—were all but sealed off, trapping us into what can only be described as a state of perpetual teenhood.
Like a lot of people I know, I'm already older than my parents are when they had me. It was different back then; being in your mid 20s was the time when responsibility started knocking, when you had to put your youth in the rearview in order to birth screaming, flakey-headed avatars of yourself, only returning to the life you'd put on ice years later on a Union Jack Vespa or an Audi TT, with a toy boy or Thai Bride and some divorce papers in tow.
But now my generation has arrived about a third of the way into the average life expectancy, and most of us are finding out that our 20s are just another stage of an extended boozy montage we've no reason, and no cause, to escape from.
In my parents' day, it was easier to grow up. It was borderline impossible not to; society dragged you up whether you wanted it or not. But on the plus side a life structure beyond FIFA and getting mashed was up for grabs. It was a time when even working-class people, even people in London, even people who didn't go to university, could find jobs that paid well, eventually buy a house, get married, and have children, indulging in all the tropes that make British suburbia both the best and worst place in the world. Sure, they did it later than their own parents and probably had a lot more fun in the process, but not only was the pressure to conform to a traditional lifestyle much greater—it was so attainable that people often did it by mistake, birthing the generation of accidental firstborns that so many of us are.
But very few people make that mistake now. Just this year, the Economist published a piece titled "The End of the Baby Boom?", noting the sudden, massive birth-rate decline in the UK. This was the first drop in the birth rate since 2001, and the biggest since the 1970s.
The reports following the survey honed in on a few possible factors, but two are held up as being the most likely causes: the insane housing market and the faltering economy, which in recent years have become totally integral to each other, like a miserable free-market Sonny and Cher. The simple facts are that unemployment is high, benefits are low, and houses are ludicrously expensive. Another cheerful recent report suggested that to buy a house in London, you'd need to be clearing 100 grand a year. Granted, that's London, but then again, London is the capital city where more than one in ten of British people live now, and the place where by far the highest wages are on offer. Yes, other places are cheaper, but the picture is repeated nationwide. Wages have stagnated to the point where earning £40,000 ($63,000) a year puts you in the top 10 percent of the population's earners. Essentially, it's all looking a bit shit out there.
Sure, perhaps basing this on children and housing ownership does play into a very traditional view of what maturity is, but in an economy that is almost entirely based on house prices, investing in property is probably your best chance of doing anything with your money other than endlessly blowing it on uncontrolled rent and misery repellents. And children must be one of the few remaining catalysts in this world that'll convince you that the party needs to stop.
These tenets of adulthood aren't for everyone, but this problem we have of people not being able to grow out of their party years has far more impact than a couple of drunk idiots crawling back into the creches of teenage nostalgia.
All around us is the evidence of what happens when you deny a generation its ability to grow up. You see it in the armies of young men and women being carried out of clubs with puke on their shirts and rage in their hearts, in the broken teeth nestled in-between the cobbles of our pedestrianized shopping precincts, in the 3.3 million young people still living with their parents, in the astonishingly high suicide rates of young men, in the cocaine-heavy water supply, in Dapper Laughs, in 90s R&B nights in supposedly hip and forward-thinking places vomiting out tired, incapacitated tertiary workers, in the boy who became addicted to selfies, in Mr. OiOi and basically everything else that has come to define this generation that just can't get its shit together.
Instead of moving on with our lives, we've stuck to what we know, because finding anything else is just too hard. We spend most of our money renting flats we don't like; we eat supermarket pizzas; we mildly enjoy a few episodes of a new American comedy series before lying face down on a pillow trying to think of new ways not to go to work. On the weekends we get as fucked up as we've been doing for the last ten years despite the fact that it throws us into wild, vertiginous depressions, because it's the only thing we have left to believe in. We are the new aging Italian bachelors in our own mundane versions of The Great Beauty—the new-British professional wreckheads, the generation that doesn't know what to do with itself now that it's been forced to choose reality over the grand, overarching myths that steered our parents the way of relative peace and respectability. When you have no myth to guide you, what do you lock in on when the hangovers and comedowns demand some normalcy to return to?
If we're to expand our options beyond the dichotomy that is "emigrate or retreat," we need to find new ways to adapt to the world we have no choice but to live in. Times are hard, things are shit, but maybe it's time to try another plan other than partying ourselves into early, middle-aged oblivion. We may well be chiefly remembered for mephedrone, shufflers, and furious responses to Vine comedians, but maybe it'd pay to stop caring about what we'll be remembered for and just get on with finding our own routes out of this pissed-up purgatory.
You don't have to learn poi and move to an eco-farm to find alternative ways of living. Moving outside of London shouldn't mean you're giving up your life. We need to start taking steps beyond the "rent a flat in E9 and just try to survive" lifestyle that's being sold to us—otherwise we'll all just continue to throw money into Lynton Crosby's scumbag utopia.
We claim to hate the system that's made us like this, yet we're all so desperate to be a part of it. Maybe it's better to be young in a new world than old in a one we know all too well. We're staring down the barrel of the first batch of acid house grandchildren, FFS. Maybe it's time we found a new way to grow up.
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